(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2006)
This is the sixth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival.
After the Wedding (Susanne Bier)
Bier’s last two films, Open Hearts and Brothers, were both exceptionally easy to watch. She builds her stories on once-in-a-lifetime conflations of events, embracing melodrama and near excess, from which by virtue of her naturalistic style she extracts a sense of modest universality and skin-of-its-teeth plausibility. I think After the Wedding pushes its luck too far in this approach though: for a while it seems like a complete bust, then salvages a bit of respectability, though hardly all. An aid worker comes back from India to his native Denmark to pursue a potential million dollar donation; the big shot invites him to his daughter’s wedding, and the visitor immediately realizes there’s more to this than he thought. “Don’t you see that there is a point to all this?” demands the millionaire, but you know, it sometimes gets tough here, particularly when one is fighting off a faint revulsion at images of deprived Indian slums being used as a bargaining chip in yet another calibration of Western morality. The point of all this includes reflections on the possibility of renewal, on the importance of honesty, on the necessity of making choices, on the impossibility of having it all, on the ambiguous effect of money, and several other things you’ve also never thought of before. It’s all nicely done, but the programme book’s claim that this is one of the “most important” films of the year is a bit of a hoot.
The Missing Star (Gianni Amelio)
I wish I’d had a chance to see more of Amelio’s films, and I wish even more that I better remembered those that I have seen. In particular, I remember his 1994 Lamerica, set in Albania after the fall of Communism, as an engrossing intersection of personal and national politics. It’s possible that Amelio has been too cerebral for mass success, although his recent work has seemed to be shifting in an easier direction. The Missing Star continues this evolution in a way, for the story is extremely minimal and simple (if rather weird) – an Italian factory sells a blast furnace to China, but an engineer is convinced that it contains a defective part, and he travels to China to locate and fix the machine. It often seems that Amelio’s real intention might have been to make a documentary, for the film is an amazing document of the unseen, vast, brutally arduous underbelly of China’s economic miracle. The central character is as vaguely defined as in any film I’ve seen recently – we know little more of him than what we glean from his actions – and the odyssey becomes increasingly existential. The film has a weakness for extreme coincidences and only-in-the-movie contrivances, and yet even these add to the sense of a different dimension in play. It’s a strange project, but I suspect it may linger with me.
Black Book (Paul Verhoeven)
This is Verhoeven’s return to Dutch filmmaking after more than twenty years in Hollywood, during which he reached the heights (by some definition) of Basic Instinct and Robocop before recklessly plunging into the classic low (by some definition) of Showgirls and the irrelevance of his last film, Hollow Man. Verhoeven is nothing if not consistent, and Black Book looks almost exactly like a film he might have made thirty years ago: check off the brassy visuals, broad-stroke characters, generous nudity, ceaseless momentum and, not least, the faint undertone of stupidity. It’s the story of a Jewish woman who colours her hair blonde and goes to work for the Dutch resistance, falling for the German officer she was assigned to seduce and then falling under suspicion as a collaborator. Any serious portrayal of wartime conditions and issues gradually falls away, to be replaced by the suspense of fingering the real traitor. Verhoeven always seems like the least reflective of filmmakers, and this occasionally gives his film an old-fashioned muscularity. There’s no windy introspection and attitudinizing here – characters are defined crisply and simply, and if we forget that classic Hollywood did things the same way, the old-fashioned symphonic score is there to remind us. In a fashion, it’s rather amazing.
And then I saw these next two in their subsequent commercial releases:
Manufactured Landscapes (Jennifer Baichwal)
Baichwal’s documentary about photographer Edward Burtunsky won the award for the best Canadian film at the festival. Burtunsky specializes in capturing modern industrial landscapes – enormous mining excavations, dense cityscapes, panoramic workspaces, images inherently frightening in what they depict of our imposition on the earth, and yet helplessly, terribly beautiful. The film is an effective survey of his work, and shows him at work in various settings, concentrating in particular on China, a country for which Burtunsky’s style could well have been invented; at other times (such as in the incredible opening shot, tracking across a factory floor for at least five minutes) it uses cinema to complement his work (by seeing the context for some of his shots we further appreciate his superb eye and feeling for the image). The artist disclaims any particular political intention for his work, stating that this would only limit the viewer’s response, and the film generally follows suit, and yet I wonder whether this is an adequate approach. The flow of images makes it all too easy to immerse ourselves in the sensual or anthropological pleasures of what we’re looking at, and while most viewers who see the film will be tuned in enough to detect the ambiguity, that doesn’t take us very far (especially since Burtunsky’s comments on his own work are mostly superficial). Regardless, it’s a fascinating, fluid work.
The U.S. vs. John Lennon (David Leaf and John Scheinfeld)
Any doubts about Manufactured Landscapes further recede if set against the much more fundamental problems posed by this new examination of the rock legend. Barely showing anything of the Beatles years and little more of his solo career, the film focuses instead on Lennon’s political activities, and on how these brought him into conflict with the U.S. government, leading in particular to his long battle against a deportation order. It’s a monumentally conventional piece of work, with a distinguished but remarkably unimaginative (and often barely relevant) line-up of talking heads, from Gore Vidal to Mario Cuomo. The impression I get is that Nixon and Hoover’s interest in Lennon was a mere drop in their paranoid ocean, but although the story doesn’t seem that complicated the movie nevertheless fails to tell it very clearly. All in all it falls quite a bit short of what you’d imagine the festival’s entry requirements for documentaries should be – you may confidently skip the movie and glean its entire contents from twenty minutes on Wikipedia, with the Imagine album playing in the background for aural texture.